Merrill Swain

Is Output Useful in the 2nd Language Classroom?

I’ve been arguing with Sarah Cottrell, Kari R. and others about the role of output in a FL classroom.  TPRS is primarily an input-based methodology:  students learn via hearing (and reading) comprehensible input.  So…should students in a TPRS class talk?  And, if so, when?

You can read Krashen’s views here.

My first answer is, talking is not useful– at all– when we start with beginners.  Most people don’t like talking at first, because they quite logically feel self-conscious because they know their accent is “wrong” or “off,” and because they know that they sound like a two-year-old.  There’s lots of research that suggests that talking in TL tops the list of “things I don’t like” in FL classrooms.

If Krashen is right about the affective filter– that people need to be happy and comfy (he says “open to input”) to learn a FL– then talking (for beginners) is totally the wrong strategy.

Output (from most learners) is often flawed, which means, bad input.  Ask any Spanish teacher what happens when you first teach “gustar” (“to be pleasing” or “to like”).  When you ask “te gusta ver la tele?”  the kids answer with “Si, te gusta ver la tele.” (Do you like watching TV? Yes, you like watching TV).  This is a classic beginner mistake.  Now, we understand (and so does the kid doing the listening)…but what they need to hear– “Si, me gusta…”– they don’t.  Why would we encourage poor modeling?

Bill VanPatten (2003) argues that language acquisition happens only when a learner is processing input. “Output,” he writes, “is not a substitute for input, which must come from other speakers.”

We might say, “poor modeling, fine, the kids will pick it up eventually.”  Sure…but that’s a waste of time; why dither?  If we can provide quality input via stories and reading, acquisition is much faster.

Another problem with output exercises– the “communication gap” activities that communicative teachers use, where kids are supposed to use (and thereby acquire) the TL to acquire information they want– is that they’re boring, and they can be bypassed via L1 use.

If you are teaching “to like,” and you tell the kids “OK, look at the list of things in your book on P. ___, and ask your partner what they like,” a lot of them will just point and say “do you like ___?” in English rather than saying “Aimes-tu les chats?”  Even if they do use TL, they’ll only do it once or twice, cos, let’s face it, this is a boring activity.  Which slows the acquisition even more.  Why would you use the target language if you don’t have to?  And everyone knows it feels fake using a non-native language with other learners.Plus, this turns the teacher into a police officer dutifully patrolling the class for TL, hounding the bad English away.  Fair enough…but don’t we have better things to do?

So if early output = bad modeling and slow acquisition, is there ever a place for output?  And we are talking output other than yes/no and one-word answers, or scripted story dialogue.  I think there is…but under some conditions.

a) Output must be perfect.  If a kid says it in class, and there’s any errors at all, it has to be immediately re-cast by teacher into perfection, and then circled.

b) Output must only come when students want to do it.  It must emerge organically.  Forced output is not language– it is drama, recitation, what VanPatten calls “language-like behaviour,” but it’s not language.  Language is what you say and understand without having to think.

With beginners, this is fairly easy: we allow only super-simple perfect output from the willing initially.  With my last batch of beginners, the first sentence they learned was Rochelle juega futbol con David Beckham en Los Angeles.  I circled that (and a parallel sentence: Breleigh baila en Cork con Seamus Ennis.).

I then wrote “juego = I play” on board and asked Rochelle “Juegas futbol con David Beckham?” and she was able to answer by reading off board– I pointed to “juego” and then “futbol con David Beckham.”  I then did a pop-up: “what do the “a” and “o” on “jueg-” mean?”  Note that I could do this because it was obvious from the first minute that Rochelle was an outgoing kid who was eager to talk (as were her friends Jasmin and Rasna, and a boy named Fahim…but they were the only ones).  Breleigh however wanted nothing to do with talking– she was OK answering questions chorally and in English– but she did not want to say anything in Spanish.  Fair enough.  After a few weeks, she started to want to answer in Spanish.

So I set it up so that the only thing they could say was meaningful to them, and perfect– they simply had to read off the board.  If they wanted vocab specific to them, I wrote it on board w/ translation.

Sarah Cotrell said to me on Twitter “My students don’t want to have language; they want to use language.”  Great…but how does quality input come from learners?  Your 4th year kids probably won’t make errors with “te gusta?” which they learned in first year…but they’ll inevitably make interlanguage etc errors with the subjunctive or whatever they have recently started seeing.

I would do some or all of the following with upper-level kids

a) limited discussion (with teacher recasts) about texts or images

b) assignments where students have to interact with native speakers and document the results (e.g. go find a Spanish speaker, and interview them, and record questions and answers with your phone or camera).

c) encourage kids to go and do stuff with the language outside of class.

Some teachers say “don’t kids in TPRS classes get bored just listening?” and I respond with “not if what they are listening to [and reading] is interesting.”  We personalise stories, we do simple Q&A about kid interests, we weave kids into stories, and we do readings about teen characters with real problems that kids care about, and we use our sense of humour above all.  We use stories because they are the most universal and oldest and most compelling form of packaging communication, period.  We always want to find out what happens in a story!

Merrill Swain often comes up here.  Swain essentially says two things: that output is important in acquisition because it “provokes” comprehensible input, and that output can make speakers aware of errors and problems, and in their desire to “fix” these problems they will acquire some language.  There are a few problems with Swain’s ideas.

Say I am in France and I am hungry, and I walk into a boulangerie.  If I stammer and point to a loaf of breadand say “Je veux acheter un…un…un…”, the boulangeur is probably going to say “baguette.”  A classic communication-gap scenario.  And I used metaliguistic strategies:  I pointed, I said “uhh” (or “eu”) over and over, etc.

Great.  I provoked output from him that became comprehensible input for me.  But there’s two problems.

a)  how am I going to remember “une baguette”?  Evidence suggests that I am going to need to hear (or read) it 20-50 times to get it hammered into my long-term memory, and more to be able to spit it out without thinking.  How are communication gaps going to do that?  This might work in an immersion environment– if the situation comes up every day, I’ll eventually pick up baguette— but we don’t have that kind of time in class.

b)  when I get input from the baker, I am getting perfect native-speaker French.   This is not what happens in a classroom, even one full of motivated, experienced and attentive students.   No matter how good the activities etc, students are still getting impoverished, error-filled input from other learners.

Swain isn’t wrong…but her theory, properly speaking, addresses learning conditions, not actual acquisition.  If I want to acquire “baguette,” I need to hear it and read it over and over– and be focused on it– otherwise my encounter with Monsieur Boulangeur will be a one-off that will find me scratching my head next time I want bread.

The second part of Swain’s theory– that output will increase the speaker’s self-awareness of problems in their grammar, vocab and pronunciation, etc, and that this will lead to acquisition– is also problematic.

Let’s say I am in India and I want some water in a restaurant.  I ask my server kanna he? and get a puzzled response.  He nods and brings me the menu.   But I don’t want a menu– I want water.  I must have screwed up.  But how did I screw up?  Did I get the word for “water” wrong?  Is my pronunciation off?  Did the guy not hear me?  Does he not speak Hindi?  (Perhaps he is a Malayalam or Bengali speaker).  As it turns out, I have the word for “water” wrong– it’s not kanna but rather panni.

First, it’s not clear what the problem is.  I know there’s a problem…but what is it?  As an adult language learner, with developed metacognitive skills, I can figure it out: wrong word.  Could a 15 year old?  A tourist with little interest in Hindi?  What if the problem is more complex, like I get a verb tense wrong, or I forget to add a crucial postposition.  Concrete nouns are easy to figure out– point and ask with raised eyebrows– how about complex grammar?

Second, even if I figure out that I got the word wrong– and I managed to ‘rescue’ the conversation by pointing to a water fountain or bottle– I will probably, as in the  boulangeur example above, probably get one mention of the word panni and that’s it.  This might work in an immersion environment, but in a classroom this is not a viable strategy.

This, to me, is the essence of the problem of language teaching: how do we provide  comprehensible input that is compelling enough that it can be repetitive enough that students can acquire it?  Of everything I’ve seen and tried– natural approach, T.P.R.S., Grammar Grind, communicative-experiential, audiolingual, “eclectic”– T.P.R.S. is the best solution to the problem, outside of an immersion environment, because it allows us to provide masses of comprehensible input that is personalised and interesting (via the personal and/or weird details, and because we use stories).